Whether or not a pronoun tipped a hand . . . or Joementum is back . . . or Ralph Nader's advice matters . . . or the schedule means anything . . . or Joe Biden is or isn't the guy . . . the race looks markedly different than it did just a few weeks ago, even before any running mates join us for the ride.
Between the aftermath of his foreign trip and his Hawaii vacation -- and the new, crisp (if juvenile) messaging from Sen. John McCain -- Sen. Barack Obama has lost his swagger in the race.
Now it's Obama who's having trouble driving a sustained message -- subsumed by his own veepstakes fog, even while he continues to see himself defined by outside forces and events.
(McCain meanwhile, plays a dangerous veepstakes game: If the first rule for a running mate is to do no harm, is it possible that McCain is harming himself even without making a choice?)
As he prepares for a return to the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., Saturday (when he'll finally have company), the race is still more about Obama than it is about McCain.
But Obama caps a summer slide with a big national poll that reminds us that this race is just about tied. (Mark this down a convention storyline -- one that raises the stakes of all of Denver's mini-dramas.)
The Bloomberg/LA Times poll has it Obama 45, McCain 43, among registered voters. That's a tie race, folks.
"John McCain has begun rallying dispirited Republicans behind him, while Democratic rival Barack Obama has made scant progress building new support, leaving the presidential race statistically tied," Michael Finnegan writes in the Los Angeles Times.
Think the McCain strategy is working? "Obama's favorable rating . . . has slid from 59% to 48% since the June poll. At the same time, his negative rating has risen from 27% to 35%. The bulk of that shift stems from Republicans souring on Obama amid ferocious attacks on the Democrat by McCain and his allies."
Among the trouble spots: "More than eight out of 10 voters say McCain's patriotism is strong, compared with just 55 percent for Obama," Bloomberg's Catherine Dodge and Heidi Przybyla report. "Overall, McCain has a slight edge on the question of honesty and integrity, while more than three times as many voters say Obama would change the way things are done in Washington."
A hallmark of the Obama operation has been its self-confidence. Outside events, public polls, intra-party sniping -- all of it is essentially ignored in Chicago. That's why the plan hasn't changed -- but should it?
When is keeping a secret bad for the message? When everyone knows there's a secret being kept.
"The fog of speculation over who will accompany Sen. Barack Obama down the aisle in Denver has obscured his message," ABC's Andy Fies reports. "There are no doubt compelling reasons for the time it has taken Obama to choose his running mate. The question is, has he paid a price for his deliberateness?"
He's taken a pounding from McCain, and Obama is starting to hit back -- though that, too, carries repercussions.
The storyline of a more-aggressive Obama has now taken hold. Now look for GOPers to tie that to the tightening of the polls. "Celebrities like him aren't used to being challenged like this," one Republican operative tells The Note.
Everyone is starting to notice the ads that were supposed to fly under the radar.